The Predator franchise has had a pretty rough go when it comes to sequels. That’s not to say they’re all devoid of value — Predators (2010) especially is still a pretty good action flick — but not a single one has even come close to the bombastic magic of the original Arnold Schwarzenegger classic. The one fail-safe the franchise has maintained is a general refusal of direct sequel-ing; each movie has followed different characters as they attempt to survive a different alien in a different setting. Throughout the years, we’ve followed mercenaries, a cop, and assassins through jungles, cities, and foreign planets for their conflicts with these killers. Making each new installment about a new group of people lets the sequels continuously go back to the drawing board; if the last movie was crap, at least it probably won’t compromise the quality of the next one.
With that being said, this newest addition to the franchise (the fifth if you don’t count the horrid Alien vs. Predator movies) returns the Predator saga to its more basic (and primal) kill-or-be-killed roots. Technically serving as a prequel, Prey takes us back to early-18th-century America, and perhaps one of Earth’s first encounters with the famed aliens. This smaller-scale change of scenery is refreshing in and of itself, but it’s especially timely considering Prey is the follow-up to the disjointed and over-complex dumpster fire called The Predator (2018); just when we thought the Predator franchise was dead on the table, along comes 10 Cloverfield Lane director Dan Trachtenberg to resuscitate it, further proving his filmmaking competence.
Prey’s leading hero this time around is played by Amber Midthunder, whose badass name isn’t the only thing that makes her a great pick for an action star. Her character, Naru, is a Native American warrior eager to prove herself as a hunter. After she sees a “thunderbird” flying overhead (in actuality an alien spaceship), Naru sees it as a sign she is ready for her “kühtaamia,” a special hunt in which you and the animal stalk each other… where predator and prey are one and the same. Her brother, Taabe (Dakota Beavers), hesitantly agrees to let her join a search for a mountain lion which has taken one of the tribe members. On the way, Naru takes note of some very large footprints and a snake that has been gutted and skinned. The other natives shrug it off as the work of a bear, but Naru knows something much deadlier lurks in the woods.
The aspect that works best for Prey is its combination of narrative patience and a short runtime. Clocking in at around 90 minutes keeps it short and sweet… it never tries to be larger than a purely entertaining action flick. And even though the first real human/alien interaction we get is about halfway through, the initial 45 minutes never feel boring or slow; that time is filled with character-driven storytelling and nuanced world-building. When the alien first arrives, we get a sense that it’s not only disrupting the forest, but the food chain of that forest as well. That snake it ultimately slays had just finished its own attack on a mouse, which has just finished snacking on an ant. It’s a small scene, but it really puts into perspective that the alien’s arrival here makes it the true alpha predator and completely redefines the natural relationships between the animals of the forest. It also effectively suggests the vital need for Naru’s cunning in her inevitable face-off against this beast, since clearly no human is a match for it where brute strength is concerned.
Prey is not without its flaws, though. Most of the characters are pretty much plot devices to further contrast and emphasize Naru’s competence and intelligence; it did feel a bit forced at times, but it’s also really easy to look past in light of an otherwise thrilling tale of gore and action. Additionally, the performances (other than Midthunder’s) are pretty unimaginative and bland… but definitely still passable. Really, I don’t think it’s a far cry to call Prey the best Predator movie since the original; it’s a really fun watch that makes me wish, out of all the sequels, it could have been the one to get a theatrical release.
Overall rating: 7/10